"Children are one-third of our population, and all of our future." This quote from the Select Panel on Child Health eloquently expresses the need for the present generation to pass along the knowledge it has gained to children. As we observe National Gardening Month, what better time to talk about the need to teach children about what (unfortunately) is becoming a lost art—gardening. The benefits (both immediate and long-term) of encouraging a child to plant his/her own garden are numerous and long-lived.
Children are curious by nature and love to be active and involved. Gardening is an excellent way for children to explore nature and the plant world through "hands-on" learning. Gardening encourages creativity and self-discipline while leading to a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Additionally, children who grow their own vegetables in a garden have been found to consume more of them. The result is a healthier diet and more active life style. In short, there is no better way for children to grow than to grow a garden.
When working with children, it is important to establish attainable goals. Therefore don't overdo it when involving them with gardening for the first time. Even a relatively small plot planted with a mix of flowers and vegetables can instill not only an appreciation of nature, but also provide a place for fun learning activities. Although there is a chance that a child's garden might not be as neatly tended as that of their parents, give the choicest garden spot you can to the child. The positive reinforcement that comes with success is important for children and, when growing plants, that begins with good soil.
Lots of sun also will aid in gardening success. A section of the family garden or a separate child's garden next to it can make gardening a family affair. To foster a sense of ownership, it is important to let children help prepare the garden plot since kids love to play in the "dirt". Soil can be turned over with a small shovel or trowel, and clumps broken up by hand. Whatever method is used, make sure soil is well-prepared before planting.
Choose easy-to-grow plants and as many different ones as you can get into the small space. Carrots, radishes, lettuces and tomatoes are good vegetable choices. If there is room in the garden for vining crops, consider planting a pumpkin whose fruit can be used at Halloween. This can make the garden experience last a little longer.
When selecting flowers for a child's garden, select annuals that are relatively easy to grow. Be sure to include at least a few that can be used as cut flowers or decorations for the dinner table or for special gifts. Zinnias, marigolds, celosia and sunflower are a few species worth consideration. City dwellers should not despair if an outdoor garden plot for children is not available. Vegetables and flowers can be successfully grown in pots and containers. A container garden on a balcony, patio or deck can produce a lot of flowers and vegetables, and it often makes the task of tending plants simpler. Since the principles of container garden differ from "traditional" gardening, consult books or online resources on the topic.
Children take special pride in having something that is their very own. Consider promoting a sense of ownership and pride by placing a sign in a child's garden that lists the child's name (e.g. "Mary's Garden"). For real personalization, make plant stakes or labels that say "Mary's beans," "John's zinnias," etc. Individual labeling can also help prevent disputes concerning ownership if more than one child has plants growing in the same garden.
The "miracle" of watching a plant emerge from a seed is a process that fascinates most children. When establishing plants by directly seeding them in the garden, select species with relatively large seeds which are easy to handle (e.g. bean and sunflower). Colorful pictures help children imagine what will eventually grow where the seeds have been sown. The empty seed packet stapled to a stake with the child's name written on it is a good way to identify the crop and personalize it. Started (bedding) plants usually come with a care tag that can be used for the same purpose.
Children love to play in water and probably will be more than eager to water their garden. The garden hose can be a helpful tool or a destructive device, depending upon how it is used. Remind children that rain usually falls very gently and they should imitate the rain when watering with a hose. A personalized sprinkling can is a good idea for younger children.
Keeping weeds in check is a bit more of a challenge. At first it can be difficult to tell small garden plants from small weeds. Therefore, allow plants a little before showing youngsters the difference between garden plants and weeds. Children might question why any plant (weed or otherwise) should be eliminated from their garden. Characterizing weeds as "garden bullies" that want to take food and water away from the "good" plants may ease the trauma of pulling out some plants.
"Patience is a virtue," goes an old saying, and the wait for flowers and vegetables to mature can teach children the rewards of patience. Watching a garden grow may not be easy: children may want to pull up young carrots and radishes to see if they are "ready." Even if they do pull up a few young plants, they may be far enough along to wash off and give a taste of bigger things to come.
Gardening also provides an ideal time for parents to talk with their children. Of course talking about how plants grow, and other aspects of nature associated with a garden is important. But the privacy and quiet of a garden is also an excellent place to just talk about "things" such as school and friends, hopes and dreams. It is surprising what parents can learn about their child in their garden. The opportunity to hear their child's thoughts will help parents guide their personal growth as well as their gardening growth.
Whether you are in a city, suburb or rural area, the future of our children is a concern to all. Instilling love, respect and understanding of how nature works by gardening produces results that last a lifetime. Encouraging children to garden is important not only for their future but also for the future of the world at large.
For additional information on establishing a children's gardening program in your community visit University of Missouri Extension's Garden 'n Grow website: http://plantsci.missouri.edu/gng/.
Acknowledgement: Adapted from an article by the National Garden Bureau.
REVISED: April 30, 2012